Wednesday, October 31, 2007

"Everything I Wish I'd Known About Adoption (but didn't think to ask)."

November is National Foster Care Month! If you have ever considered foster parenting (or foster adoption), find more information here.

We had been married almost three years when Craig and I looked at each other and said, "Well, no baby yet. Now what?" International adoption was W-A-Y too expensive, and besides there are lots of kids right here that need a good home. "Maybe we could take in a half-dozen of them ... there's lots of room for a triple set of bunkbeds upstairs!" (I may have said that last sentence; Craig tends to be the cautious half.)

A few harrowing months later, we had a sibling group of three. A month after that, I learned the first important lesson of parenthood: I had overestimated my capacity by at least half. Thankfully, God agreed. Nine months later we were down to two, and happy to keep it that way.

These past five years -- three as foster parents, two as adoptive parents -- have been replete with "aha" moments, important insights that would have come in handy at the outset of our adventure. Then again, who knows if we would have been smart enough to catch them second-hand. My top ten (related to foster adoption) include:

* (Before deciding on an agency) Don't sign up with the first agency you interview. Always ask to speak with other foster parents (or adoptive parents) about their experiences.

* (During orientation meetings) Pay attention to how social workers and other agency representatives talk to you -- and talk about other foster or adoptive parents. If the social worker treats you like a not-quite-bright child, or part of the problem instead of part of the solution, find another agency.

* (During training) If you feel unable to help certain types of cases -- sexual abuse victims, or severe trauma -- it is infinitely better to get training about recognizing and helping children with these kinds of problems than trust the agency not to send you kids with these kinds of problems. Forewarned is forearmed ... and children do not always come with complete case histories.

* (Before home study) Yes, the questions are invasive. (Just think of how exposed a mother feels during labor and delivery). Just remember that it's a means to an end, and that this interview is an important way to weed out unsuitable candidates -- including those who are just in it for the money, and who might expose these children to additional danger. Instead of being offended, be grateful for their diligence.

* If it looks like red crayon on the wall, lock up your lipstick collection. If it looks like brown crayon, give it the sniff test before getting the Mr. Clean sponge. If the closet smells, clean out the cottage cheese and put a childproof latch at the top of the closet door.

* Foster kids need closer supervision than other kids. You may get a better night's sleep if you let them sleep next to you (or you next to them...) Especially in the beginning, don't leave them alone with animals or other children. Not even "just for a minute."

* Foster kids also need more structure than other kids. Older kids (4 or more) may cope with the out-of-control feelings inside them with ordering you around. The more (loving) structure you build into the day, the better they will adjust.

* There is "real time" and there is "agency time." If the agency estimates that it will take a month to get your levels approved, mentally double the figure before you start asking questions. For each "layer" of bureacracy involved in the decision, double that estimate again.

* Every time you hear yourself saying, "Oh, I couldn't handle it if ______ happened," stop. Nothing is gained by going there. You have enough to handle already. Just stay focused in the present, and trust God for the future.

* "Forever" isn't always forever. "Never" isn't always, either. If you want a child to love, there will always be someone who needs someone to love her. Even if you have that child in your life a short time, you can make a big difference. And that child will make a big difference in you, too.

This week I am hosting the November 4, 2007 edition of "Adoption Blogpost Round-up." This week's post is dedicated to adoptive parents who discovered a few things after bringing Baby home that they didn't know before they got their little bundle of joy. Now that I've shared mine ... here are the offerings of other adoptive parents, too! Some are Catholic, some are from other (or no) religious traditions; all have written in to share their "Eureka!" moments in

"Everything I Wish I'd Known About Adoption ....

(but didn't think to ask)."

"I didn't know..."

"... how unprepared I was to witness the relinquishment." Heather at
Production, Not Reproduction presents a letter to her son's first mom on Mother's Day, telling her how her brave choice changed Heather's life.

"... how my children's grief would become my grief, too." Jane at Building the Ark presents Mother's Day 2007, in which she recounts the powerful emotions she felt when she was trying to help her adopted children cope with the grief and loss of losing their first families.

"...I didn't know how strong I really was." Jessie at The Making of a Mom presents What I Didn't Know. In it, this former social worker and adoptee shares how surprised she was to discover how little she knew about the adoption process until she was going through it herself. "What a crazy little journey this has been!"

"... about gay penguins." Veronica presents What makes a family? posted at The Red Thread. This frankly feminist mother teaches her daughter about adoption with a book about two male penguins who tend another couple's egg. (Her daughter finds the story "sad." I agree.)

"... that the dog wouldn't love such a beautiful baby!" Erin Thomas presents Ella's Adventures posted at Journey To Ella, where she shares Ella's first month at home.

"... that forty dollars could be so much fun!" Jenny Alicea at Yes, They're Mine presents The Journey in which she rediscovers the joy of teeter-totters.

That concludes this edition. Submit your blog article to the next edition of adoption blogpost round-up using our carnival submission form. Past posts and future hosts can be found on our blog carnival index page.

Monday, October 22, 2007

40 Reasons We'd Do It Again ... Thoughts on Adoption

This past weekend my article on Post-Adoption Depression Syndrom (PADS) was posted at CatholicExchange, and generated a great deal of discussion. Some of them hinted (some quite broadly) that the article was unnecessarily discouraging prospective adoptive parents, and that I should be doing more to encourage more couples to consider this option. (To read the article, click on the header above.)

I agree that more couples should consider adoption. With more than 500,000 children currently in the U.S. needing temporary or permanent homes, there are ample opportunities for generous souls to reach out. On the other hand, it does no good to go in "blind." Information is power, and letting couples know up front that some struggle with the transition ... and then go on to form happy families ... Well, that is information worth knowing. Forewarned is forearmed.

Having said that, I do believe that there are many good reasons for considering adoption. And here are my top forty reasons why Craig and I would adopt Christopher and Sarah all over again if we could. (And hopefully do it a little smarter the second time around.)

1. Kids are natural virtue builders. They are the perfect antidote to self-absorption and an inordinate sense of self, and bring out (sometimes by force) untapped stores of patience and gentleness. Not to mention humility.

2. They add laughter and affection. Whether it's the sight of Sarah clad in glittering loungewear and sunglasses, or the feeling of one of them snuggling close to me at Mass, children have natural gifts that brighten all of life.

3. They are a built-in marriage enhancer. While some aspects of married love are more difficult to enjoy with a five-year-old permanently camped out on the bedroom floor, others are that much more enjoyable. The "Ewwwwwwwww. Gross!" that a tentative peck elicites frequently inspires my DH to come back for seconds, with greater feeling. Then we remind them that we have a license to do this anytime we want, and then it's the most beautiful thing in the world.

4. They are a built-in "Get out of ___ free" card. This works especially well when you have kids with emotional or behavior challenges. "Well, yes, I can be on your committee ... so long as my children can be there, too." You'd be surprise how often my services are suddenly no longer needed....

5. They are a built-in conversation starter. Like many writers, I tend to be something of an introvert. I can (and often do) force myself to make small-talk, but I've gotten a lot better at it since joining the "Mommy League." And if I get trapped, I suddenly can hear my child calling me. ...

6. They tend to make hard-to-love people ... more loveable. I don't mind saying that my kids (when they're on their best behavior) are pretty cute. I can say this, since I didn't have anything to do with the particular arrangement of their genetic code. But one look into those chocolate-brown peepers of my daughter's, and even the stuffiest soul has offered a grudging, "My, aren't you sweet!" Sometimes yes, sometimes no ... but first impressions are important!

7. They provide a built-in excuse for buying children's books and movies. I have a friend who has five floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, full of children's books. I'm nowhere near that dedicated (my five floor-to-ceilings are a mix of children's books and theology tomes). But having two early readers gives me license to browse and read to my heart's content. Research, you know.

8. They provide a built-in excuse to trot out my childhood traditions. Yesterday was "Apple Dumpling Sunday," the morning after our first fall trip to the orchard. In a few weeks we'll build gingerbread houses, then the Advent mother's tea. The whole Christmas cookie marathon. And of course Christopher's favorite, "Green Eggs and Ham" on St.Patrick's Day.

9. They give me a chance to see my parents in a different light. My mother was born to be a grandmother. My Dad says so, too. All of her great qualities -- her creativity and humor -- rise to the surface when the grandkids are around, while other less desireable traits evaporate. It's easy to smile when you know the urchins can be returned to their parents at any time.

10. Party dresses. Lucky for me, I got a built-in princess who loves swirls and ribbons and bows. Second only to running around naked.

11. Dress-up boxes. I can search the racks of the Salvation Army for the most garish and sparkly offerings, knowing that by taking them for my daughter's treasure box I am sparing some other individual a serious fashion faux-pas.

12. Birthday cakes. This could fit under "family traditions," but they deserve a separate category. Barbie up to her armpits in angel food and ganache. Dora the Explorer figurines up to their ankles in a buttercream forest. Castles with marshmallows and inverted ice cream cones. What fun.

13. Daddy magic. There is something about the sight of my husband down on all fours, charging like a wild rhino as the kids swing from the shower curtain like Tarzan and leap upon his (poor) back that brings out the Jane in me.

14. Mommy magic. For a few more years, at least, I am the smartest and most desirable of all living creatures to two (three if you count my husband) living souls. It can be a tiny drag when I want five minutes of peace and quiet to take a shower, but most days I get a real charge out of having them return with their father and fling themselves in my lap with wild abandon. "MOMMY!" Yes, that's me.

15. Mother's Day. For 20 years or so (1983-2003), I always cringed a bit when May rolled around. I knew that, barring a miracle, I'd never have a child the conventional way. Now I look forward to the burned toast and handmade cards with a special kind of eagerness.

16. Father's Day. I don't mind telling you that my husband was born to be a father. He is kind and patient and gentle and good. He is also intelligent and interested in world around him. I get a huge kick out of helping the kids express in their own precious, grubby fashion how neat they think he is, too.

17. Superbowl Sunday. I hate sports, particularly televised sports. When we got married, I made Craig a deal: If he kept it to no more than two games a year, I would make sure he celebrated those two events in style. He keeps his end of the bargain most years ... and now that he has someone to watch the games with, I don't have to feign interest even those times. Sarah and I can go do something fun, and leave theboys with their stuffed mushrooms.

18. Built-in tea party partner. Sarah has picked up my taste for high tea, and loves nothing more thanto put on a fancy party dress and go to my favorite tea shop with me, to sip apple juice from fine china and nibble on petit fours. Sometimes my MIL comes along, and having Sarah there always keeps things light and fun.

19. Christmas. There is nothing like Christmas with small children. The excitement. The gifts. The treats. The preparation... yards and yards of popcorn strands and paper chains. Best of all, the music. Christopher is a little more understated in how he carries a tune, but Sarah belts out the "Christmas" section of the hymnal with unrelenting abandon. And so, I might add, do I.

20. Vacations. There are some kinds of trips that are much better shared. Dino Land. Bug Village. Thomas the Train Day at the Henry Ford Museum. But the very word "vacation" has a particular meaning for our kids. It means a hotel -- any hotel, really, as long as there is a pool and pizza delivery service.

21. Water. I learned to swim when I was fairly young, but for the past twenty-five years or so have studiously avoided being caught in a bathing suit in public. With Sarah in tow, it just doesn't matter. No one is looking at my cellulite as long as Sarah is running around the deck with her bathing suit cap pulled down, making her look like a Shar-Pei, screaming, "LOOK AT ME LOOK AT ME LOOK AT ME!!!!" (splash.)

22. S'mores. Need I say more? Ditto cotton candy.

23. Christmas pageants. Sure, watching little kids pull their angel costumes over their heads and torture the upper ranges of "Silent Night" is endless fun. But it gets even better when the third angel from the left is YOUR little flasher.

24. A Second Childhood. Growing up, we didn't do certain things. Celebrate Halloween (including trick-or-treating). Watch Tom-and-Jerry reruns (we didn't own a television set). Go to Disneyland. Swing dance. I get to do all these things now ... with my kids.

25. Spiritual milestones. I was thirty when I entered the Church, and so I never got to experience First Holy Communion the way my daughter will in a few years. I already have her white dress and veil stashed away in my closet. Christopher, too, loves to hear about the day he gets to receive Jesus in the Eucharist. And I never get tired of telling him.

26. Faith through a child's eyes. Thanks to my children, I get to experience the wonder of faith all over again. The retelling of Jonah and the whale, and David and Goliath. ("Hey, Mom! Was the giant REALLY nine feet tall?" They wait breathlessly to hear the angel in the bellfry ringing the bells that call out, "Come to church, come to church! Everybody come to church!" And listen again as the Eucharist is elevated and the chimes ring again, knowing that we are never closer to heaven than at that moment.

27. Silly songs. My mother gave me a million of them. The Austrian that Went Yodeling. Waltzing Matilda. I'm Wild About Cars (that go "wah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah, ooga, ooga"). The entire Gilbert and Sullivan reperatoire. I enjoy them a lot more now that I have a captive audience.

28. Family stories. My parents -- and his -- are REALLY their grandparents, so we do what we can to pass along the family history, including family recipes.

29. Simplicity. Life with kids is about juggling priorities. Do I really want two shelves full of bisque china figurines, knowing they can be instantly converted into expensive landfill with a well-aimed swipe of a pirate sword? Do I need 46 pairs of unmatched socks and 450 back issues of Guideposts, knowing that they can and will be spread from one end of the house to the other in a matter of nanoseconds? Do I need 7 kinds of eye purple eye shadow, knowing all the many, varied (and frequently uncleanable) uses a five-year-old can find with a pot of eye shadow and a jar of Vaseline?

30. Nature Channel, Travel Channel, and History Channel. I'd forgotten how interesting learning can be. With kids, self-education is a matter of self-preservation. I don't want to wait until my son is in fifth grade to start sharpening the ol' hatrack.

31. Life Membership in the Mommy Club. Shortly after getting the kids, I joined the Mom's group at church and made a whole new set of friends. Kids have a way of pulling down barriers between people.

32. A new view of the world. Those who adopt internationally get an intimate connection with a part of the world they might otherwise not have discovered. Those who foster-adopt have a bird's eye view of state and local government, and what it's like to be on the receiving end of those tax dollars at work. It's humbling ... it's also motivating. I've written more letters about the sorry state of the social services system and how it treats the children in its care than about almost any other subject. I've seen a children's home. I've met the social workers. As a foster parent, I was the only advocate my children had (I had already come to think of as "mine") when they needed services. Suddenly the label "pro-life" took on a whole new meaning. I wanted to know whether a candidate continued to represent the needs and interests of children even after they were safely born.

33. Empathy for the marginalized. Shortly after we got him, we registered Christopher in a special Montessori preschool program -- a very expensive one -- that we had been told was good for foster children. He lasted a month before other parents (most of them devout Catholics) got together and pressured the teacher to have Christopher withdrawn from her class. He used words like "dead" and "kill," and generally was a "bad influence."

That was a low point for me, as a parent -- especially since the teacher clearly believed Christopher's behavior problems were entirely my fault. She went on and on about his poor table manners. (It was true, he didn't use a knife and fork very well. On the other hand, he no longer stuffed cottage cheese in his pockets, either. Little victories.) That experience reminded me how important it is to teach children tolerance and consideration even at a very young age. (Christopher taught his classmates "kill," but they taught him "stupid.")

34. A better understanding of the Fatherhood of God. God has adopted each of us, calls each of us His children. The full extent of this hit me after we adopted our kids. An adoptive parent loves regardless of whether we are loved back. An adoptive parent looks for ways to reach out and communicate that love. An adoptive parent must be patient, and allow the child to approach on his terms in order to build a sense of safety. God is like that, too.

35. A better understanding of Mary as Mother. She had one perfect child, and was herself "immaculate." This was way out of my league ... most days I had to aspire to "adequate." But by becoming an adoptive parent, I cultivated the habit of turning to Mary throughout the day, just as my children turned to me. And just like a good adoptive mom, Mary waited for me to ask for help ... and stepped right in with what I needed most.

36. A better understanding of the cross. This most public and painful of excruciating deaths was what it took for the Son of God to complete the salvific work done on our behalf. To a certain extent, parenting shares a certain amount of painful and public humiliations ... but adoptive parents get to share in it in a unique way. Just when we want to shout to the world, "IT'S NOT MY FAULT THAT THIS KID _____," we realize that this would do no good anyway. So we take a deep breath, get a better hold of ourselves, and keep going. Others have gone before us, and will come after us, who can empathize. But even Our Lord felt the weight of rejection... "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" (The difference is, of course, that we are never truly alone.)

37. Limitless writing material. When in the early throes of parenthood, my brain cells wouldn't arrange themselves into coherent sentences, so I did a lot of late-night journaling. The stories from those first months are precious to me now, and the whole parenting experience has given my writing a texture and nuance that wasn't there before.

38. A bigger heart. I have more patience now, and am less quick to jump on other people's shortcomings. I know that there is often more than meets the eye in any family situation. And I try to be as generous and understanding as others have been with me.

39. An appreciation for the "encouraging word." Sarah and Christopher are in opposite ends of the behavior spectrum. Sarah responds to praise infinitely better than even the most constructive criticism. Her eyes light up when you celebrate her accomplishments with her ... and her foul moods pass like a thundercloud if she catches the sunshine of my smile.

40. Their birth family. I've heard that the essential bond between a child and his first (or birth) parents is never truly broken. The loss of that bond is something that affects a child for life, no matter how wonderful the people who adopt him (or her.) Someday I'm going to have to help my children come to terms with this loss ... and will be able to tell them about a mother who never wanted to let them go, but got caught in a lifetime of bad choices. Knowing her story has encouraged me to look at my own choices a little more carefully. I never want to inflict that kind of pain on another human being.

BONUS: Adoption has changed me ... mostly for the better. People look into adoption for all kinds of reasons. Some are infertile, some simply have a heart for a certain country or a certain kind of child. Some have relatives they simply don't want to see go "into the system." Some decide it is the definitive pro-life choice (which it is). But whatever motivates a person to love in the abstract, that motivation changes when a particular child enters your life. That's when the transformation truly begins. Yes, you are about to change a child's life ... for the better, one can only hope. But be prepared: that child is going to change you, too. Count on it.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Lift High the Cross

Lift high the cross, the love of Christ proclaim
Till all the world adores His sacred Name!
Led on their way by this triumphant sign,
The hosts of God in conquering ranks combine.

Lift high the cross, the love of Christ proclaim
Till all the world adores His sacred Name!
Each newborn servant of the Crucified
Bears on the brow the seal of Him Who died.

George Kitchin and Michael Newbolt (1916)

In today's first reading, we find Moses leading the Chosen People in war against the soldiers of Amalek. He sends Joshua ahead with the troops, while he and his two trusted aides -- his brother Aaron and brother-in-law, Hur -- assist Moses in intercession. Moses raises his arms in prayer, and as long as he maintained this position, the Israelites were successful in battle. Each time Moses lets his arms down, the enemy gets the upper hand. So Aaron and Hur stood alongside Moses and physically held his arms in place until the battle was won.

Why had Moses chosen these two in particular -- apart from the fact that they were related? Aaron was known for his eloquence; when God commanded Moses to speak to Pharaoh, the prophet urged God to send his silver-tongued brother instead. According to the Hebrew commentary known as the "Midrash," Hur was killed while trying to stop the people from bowing down to the Golden Calf while Moses was up on Mt. Sinai, receiving the law.

Eloquence and faithfulness; wisdom and integrity. These were the qualities embodied in the two men closest to the first leader of the Hebrew People after they were liberated from bondage. While his successor, Joshua, was at the front leading his people in battle, Moses remained behind to inspire and intercede. So long as he persevered in his efforts, God was with them.

Lift High the Cross

The classic Christian hymn quoted at the beginning of this reflection (to hear it, click on the header and "Cyberhymnal" will strike up the tune) ties in well with this intercessory theme. It reminds us that the battle is not yet over. All around us, enemies of good seek to destroy us, or at least silence us. The "40 Days for Life" campaign is but one recent example of how Christians are banding together to stop the holocaust.

However, we need to be fighting the good front at home as well. In response to my article at CE yesterday, someone wrote to thank me for expressing the struggle some adoptive parents face. "I used to pray, 'Lord, take my heart of stone and give me a heart of flesh,' and God in his goodness answered my prayer," she said. That answer was painful at times; and yet this dear woman had chosen to lift up her arms in supplication ... and take up the cross that had been entrusted to her.

In our war on the culture of death, we need our young warriors facing down the enemy. Some protest. Some counsel. Some even take the casualties -- damaged and hurting children -- home with them. We need prayer warriors, like Moses, to intercede. And we need the faithful and the articulate to take the message of life to those who need it most. And yet if we are going to be faithful to this calling, we must be prepared to suffer as well.

Before we can hope to win the war, we must resign ourselves to the fact that victory is not cheap. The battle is going to cost us something, for our enemy is not without power. And yet,

"Led on their way by this victorious sign,

The hosts of God in conquering ranks combine."

Lift high the cross, my friends!

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Tribute to my Grandmother

“Oh, what a pretty little girl! Won’t you come here and sit on my lap, and visit with me?” With effort, my grandmother eagerly reached out to Sarah, who exclaimed over the old woman’s rose-colored fingertips. Soon the two of them were chatting like old friends. Sarah enthralled her great-grandmother with stories from preschool, and the unintended joke that had made me laugh just a few days before:

“One mouse, many mice;
One house, many … cats!”

For the past several years, my paternal grandmother has been living in a senior residence in eastern Ohio, down the street from my Aunt Susan. During that time Grandma mellowed considerably – and has also lost most of her memory. When we approached her wheelchair, Grandma clearly had no idea who I was … she only had eyes for my daughter.

As I watched the two of them chat and laugh, I felt a little guilty about the fact that I had not wanted to bring my children to visit her at all. But Aunt Suzy, my godmother, can talk me into almost anything. And so we went … but I wasn’t happy about it.

“Why should I go out of my way to spend time with someone who has never been able to conceal what a colossal disappointment I am to her?” I grumped to my father (another person who can talk me into almost anything).

“For the same reason I do,” he said dryly. “Because she’s my mother.”

In retrospect, I was glad we went. It was the last time I saw her alive … and I was grateful that the memory was a happy one. For all of us.

The Best … and the Rest

As her oldest grandchild – the oldest child of her oldest child – I have vivid memories of the long weekends we spent at my father’s childhood home. Grandma’s tiny kitchen, in which she turned out impressive Thanksgiving spreads one day, and fresh-from-the-oven cinnamon buns the next. The covered porch with its monstrous green glider, where my grandparents sat with us, sipping glass bottles of Coke and munching peanuts. Grandma’s bedroom was lined with photographs of a bygone era; my favorites were the images of the elegant young woman posing for her engagement announcement, and the younger version of herself dancing en pointe.

In her younger days Grandma projected the very image of genteel propriety; she married well, then set aside her nursing career to tend to the needs of her husband and three children. In public she deferred to her husband; in private she ruled her home with a velvet-covered iron fist.

Grandma had high expectations of her three kids – and harbored some unfortunate prejudices. When my aunt fell in love with a Filipino doctor and married him, Grandma did not speak to her daughter for three years, until the first grandson was born. Ironically, this same daughter lovingly tended to her mother’s needs after Grandpa passed.

In truth, what I love most about my grandmother, her greatest legacy, is her children. My father – a quiet, unassuming man who served his country and raised his family (four girls) with understated passion and integrity. My Aunt Susan, who found it in her heart to forgive – truly and completely – the shortcomings of the flawed yet well-meaning individuals who raised her, and who embodies the “sandwich generation,” having raised five children while tending to both her widowed Filipina mother-in-law, whose language she could not speak, as well as her own mother. And my Uncle Pete, just twelve years older than me, who called me his “Sweetie Pie” … and was married three times before finding his sweetheart, Peggy. None of Grandma's kids perfectly lived up to her high expectations, but all of them grew up to be compassionate individuals and hard workers who consistently put family first.

The Glory of, Story of Love

“Friends are the family you get to choose,” the saying goes. And while the reverse can also be true – family members can become true friends – it doesn’t always work that way. On the other hand, those whose company we tend to avoid can be a sure source of grace, if we are willing.

I wasn’t smart enough to look for it. I took my grandmother’s criticisms to heart, interpreting them as rejection rather than attempts to help me. I see now that she was not malevolent in her intentions; she simply didn’t know what to make of me, or of my independence. So I tuned her out, closing my heart to her criticism … and to her.

My sister Kathy managed to look past my grandmother’s gruff exterior – first, by cultivating a close relationship with Grandpa. When Kathy was young she spent hours in Grandpa's shop, his quiet sanctuary. When Grandpa died, Kathy took the loss especially hard … and Grandma found an ally in her grief. Later, when Kathy made devastating life choices, Grandma stuck by her.

No, my grandmother was not an easy person to love. But those who made the effort were enriched by it. As for me, I will always remember that last encounter with my Grandmother as a healing moment. The angry memories that had preoccupied my thoughts were finally silenced as I watched her happy, carefree exchange with my children. Right then, she was the grandmother I always wanted.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Three Things My Parents Did Right

Jen at "Et tu?" has started a group writing project, asking for people to submit a post on the following topic:
"What are three things
your parents did right?"

Here are mine, in no particular order:

1. Listen to God when He asks you to do something. The summer before I went to teach ESL in Senegal, West Africa, I overheard my father defending my decision to a relative who could not believe that my parents would let me "waste" my life that way. I'll never forget his response: "Well, we've spent our whole life teaching her obedience. We can hardly blame her for taking us seriously enough to follow when GOD tells her to do something!"

I've often wondered if there were times he wished he hadn't taught the lesson quite so well. Such as when (to my parents' great consternation) I became Catholic in 1994. They struggled with the decision, I know. But a few years after the fact (right around the time Craig and I married in 1999, in fact), Dad said, "You know, Heidi, I don't waste a lot of time trying to talk you out of something. I know that before you make a decision, you look at all the angles and think it over carefully ... but once the choice is made, that's it!" (He said it like it was a good thing, bless him.)

2. Ask God for what you need. I was in third grade when my sister Chris was diagnosed with bone cancer, and the years that followed were very difficult for all of us ... financially and in every other way. Our church family rallied around us, and finally things started getting better.

One year we decided to host an exchange student. My parents invited her parents to visit us the following spring ... but then Chris wound up back in the hospital. Late one night, my parents debated over whether to send our exchange student to live with another family, since they didn't know how they were going to feed their own kids with all the medical bills.

The next morning as I came down to breakfast, I heard my father pounding some boards on our front porch. I went out and saw that he had hammered a popsicle stick under our mail box that read "Tervetuola." "That means 'welcome' in Finnish," Jaana told me. My parents had decided that we would keep her -- and trust God to provide for her parents.

After breakfast we piled into the car, and Dad warned us not to say anything about our medical bills to the people at church. "They've helped us enough already." We didn't ... and when we got back from church that afternoon, our hearts dropped when we saw the front porch door propped open. Thinking we had been robbed, my dad went ahead to make sure it was safe.

The next thing we knew, we heard Dad laugh. We ran up the front porch steps ... and found Dad standing in the middle of ten large boxes of groceries. And on top of the largest box was a three-layer chocolate cake (my favorite). "It must have been God's hospitality angel," my mother announced. And she must have been right, since no one else ever stepped forward to take the credit.

The food fed us for a month -- and the experience stayed with me for life. Whenever I've found myself in a tight spot, I remember that chocolate cake. Suddenly money for the phone bill doesn't seem like such a big thing.

Twenty years later, I returned to New Jersey to show my husband and kids the house I grew up in. My parents have long since moved from the area ... but that popsicle is still nailed to the mailbox.

3. The best way to stop feeling sorry for yourself is to look out for someone worse off than you. We didn't have a lot of spare cash in those days, but my mother especially was remarkable in her ability to find ways to help others. She'd see my hippie friend Larry coming down the block, and instead of bolting the door she'd go into the kitchen and whip up a tray of biscuits, knowing that he probably hadn't eaten much that day. Biscuits and peanutbutter or honey. He'd polish off the whole tray, every time.

This past month I've spent a lot of time out of commission, and been on the receiving end of other people's generosity. One friend came in and washed my kitchen floor. Another came and did a few loads of laundry. The ladies at church brought meals three times a week. The one who washed the floor (my most hated chore) said it best. "When my back went out last year, someone came over and did this for me, and I promised myself I'd 'pay it forward.' Someday you'll have a turn to do the same ... but for now, go lay down and get better!"

I think there's an element of this in the way my parents have lived, too. When Dad retired last year, the first thing he did was get a regular gig with Habitat for Humanity, and mom took a Spanish class so she could take over the lunch-making ministry for migrant kids in their area. They spent much of my childhood being on the receiving and ... and now they're "paying it forward" with every ounce of strength and enthusiasm they can muster.

Not out of obligation, though. Out of a lifetime of love caught ... one chocolate cake at a time.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Make a Gingerbread House! An Advent Tradition

Today I got my November/December issue of Canticle in the mail, and realized that I needed to get this recipe up quick! (I refer to my family's gingerbread house tradition in my "About This Issue" column.)

At the end of November each year (the Friday after Thanksgiving may be a convenient time, since the project can extend an entire weekend), we get started mixing dough, cutting out the templates, and baking each cookie. The next day, we make a batch of royal icing (I cheat and use the powdered kind, but I noticed Danielle Bean (editor of "Faith and Family") has a good one on her site here).

About cutting out the template for each piece of the house: You can make your own out of posterboard or laminated parchment paper. If you're not architecturally inclined, you can enlarge and trace a simple pattern here. Or, if you're a little more ambitious, here.

We like to make two houses ... one to keep, one to give. (I've found that teachers especially appreciate it if you offer to host a gingerbread decorating party in the classroom ... and may even let you tell the story of St. Nicholas and the three bags of gold!).
Each year we invite another family to participate ... it's more fun when you can decorate multiple houses! In our family we demolish each house on New Year's Day with large glasses of cold milk and mugs of steaming tea. Enjoy!
Gingerbread House

Each recipe makes one house, with enough to make a few gingerbread men or women for the tree. You will need...

5-1/2 C unsifted flour
1 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp baking powder
2 tsp cinnamon
3 tsp ground ginger
2 tsp ground cloves
1 tsp nutmeg
1 C shortening
1 C sugar
1-1/4 C molasses (dark)
1 large egg
1 tsp vanilla

Combine dry ingredients into a bowl; stir and set aside. Cream sugar and shortening. Beat in molasses, egg, and vanilla until smooth. Gradually stir in dry ingredients into the molasses mixture. When it becomes too stiff to stir with spoon, work dough in with hands until completely blended. Divide dough into 4 parts. Shape into a flattened round, wrap in plastic wrap, and chill at least 1 hour and up to 2 weeks.

Place a disk of chilled dough on a foil-lined cookie sheet. Cover with waxed paper or more plastic wrap and roll to 1/4-inch thickness. (Paper keeps the dough from sticking, so you don't need flour for rolling.)

Remove plastic/waxed paper and place templates on dough, leaving 1/2-inch border around pieces. Use a small, sharp knife to cut around pattern edges. Use fingers or knife to remove scrap dough pieces, leaving house pieces intact on the foil. Cut out doors and windows as desired.

Bake at 325 degrees for 10-25 minutes, depending on the size of the pieces. Gingerbread will darken, especially around edges, and feel firm to the touch. While cookies are still warm, put templates back on each piece and trim any extra cookie around the edges (it will expand during the baking process). Cool and peel off foil. Store in a cool, dry place.

To construct house, pipe or spread royal icing on the foil-lined cardboard where you want the "base" to rest. Place base cookie on top. Secure front and back, using cans to prop them up while you affix sides. Allow to dry completely before removing cans and affixing roof. Allow to dry completely before decorating.

To Make the Gingerbread House, You Will Need:

Pre-baked (trimmed and cooled) gingerbread cookies. (You will need at least seven pieces: One base, two pointy front and back pieces, two windowed side pieces, two roof pieces, and a base.

Foil-covered cardboard. (Should be large and sturdy enough to support not only the house but any surrounding "landscaping" you choose to do.)

A couple of soup cans. (Use them to support the walls while they are drying, and remove before you put on the roof.)

Royal icing. One batch for each house you are making. When you are not actually using part of the batch, keep the icing covered by a clean, damp paper towel and dishtowel, to keep it from drying out prematurely. You will also need something to "pipe" the frosting (disposable pastry bag or Baggie with the tip clipped off). If you choose to color the icing (I usually don't), paste gives you bolder colors than liquid food color.

Decorations! It's really up to you what you choose to use. Tinted coconut for grass (or white for snow), frosted sugar cones for trees, Vanilla wafers for roof shingles, wafer cookies for window shutters, front stoop, benches, or door. M&Ms or pastel mints for brickwork or around garden beds (I often pipe a "tree" or "lattice" onto the back of my house, and use M&M's for "flowers.")
Red-hots and sprinkles to decorate the tops of roofs and trees. Let your imagination go wild!

Monday, October 01, 2007

Join the Adoption Journey Carnival!

Jessie at "The Making of a Mom" has just posted her first "Adoption Carnival." If you're considering adding to your family through adoption, check it out!